How Avatars Can Improve Our Health

According to findings published in the Journal of Marketing Research, people tend to have a “now or whenever” mentality when it comes to results. We’d like our rewards now, thank you — but if we have to wait, it doesn’t matter so much when they arrive.

It’s why we’re willing to pay considerably more to have something shipped tomorrow, but not much more to have it shipped in seven days rather than 10. It’s probably also why, if we can’t have rock-hard abs tomorrow, it seems like it doesn’t matter whether we start that aerial yoga class today or next week. Or whenever.

Behavioral economists say we’re even more likely to discount future rewards if we can choose a more immediate alternative. No wonder skipping a workout to dine with friends always seems like a good idea.

Logically, we know that the sooner we start improving our diet and exercise habits, the better. But how can we get as excited about the health benefits we’ll enjoy in 10 years as we get about overnight shipping? Researchers have found one way to bypass our tendency to prefer pleasure in the present: show us pictures of ourselves.

Hey, That’s Me — But Fitter

In five studies, scientists at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab set out to test whether virtual doppelgangers would influence their owners’ real-life health and fitness behavior. As it turned out, they did.

The researchers created personalized avatars using participants’ photographs. In one study, people who watched their avatars running on a treadmill were more likely to exercise following the study than those who watched their avatars lounging. Watching avatars of strangers exercising didn’t have the same motivating effect.

In another study, people who watched their avatar’s figure get slimmer during a workout — or conversely, gain weight in connection with inactivity — were even more likely to get moving afterward. Similar experiments in which avatars ate healthy or unhealthy food, and waistlines narrowed or expanded accordingly, also spurred healthier behavior.

We feel compelled to imitate what we see, the study authors said, especially when the outcomes of the actions become more tangible.

For more, please visit the full post over at U.S. News Eat + Run blog


I’m a health writer and graduate student. I'm interested in the wily side of health – self sabotage, persuasion, and why health campaigns so often manage to inadvertently piss people off.

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